A Bit of Bunting

A new history of the British Empire elevates expediency to principle

The greatest books on the largest empire in history were written in a seventeen-year period, from 1959 to 1976. Some of these works, such as Eric Stokes's The English Utilitarians and India and R. E. Frykenberg's Guntur District, 1788-1848, tackled discrete aspects of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to illuminate large and complex ideas; others, including A. P. Thornton's The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies, were sweeping in scope, as was the best of these books, and what I believe to be the best work of British historical scholarship in the twentieth century: Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher's Africa and the Victorians. Nearly all of them were written with verve and precision and were distinguished by a cool and elegant line of argument rare in works of scholarly history. Perhaps for this reason, or because they reached a public that, witnessing the final throes of "decolonization," was somewhat preoccupied with the subject, these books were read, or at least talked about, by far more people than is usual for such academic works. But since then the study of British imperial history—with some notable exceptions—has become, like so many other fields of historical scholarship, narrower in scope and more concerned with fitting, or forcing, contemporary "progressive" concerns onto the past. It has also attracted more than its share of godawful writers. Reading the British reviews of David Cannadine's Ornamentalism (published in the UK last spring), one of the most widely touted scholarly interpretations of British history in a decade (and showing every sign of being treated as an important and influential book in the United States), I hoped this trend would be reversed.

In the United States, Cannadine is probably the most popular serious historian of Britain. A professor at the University of London, formerly at Columbia, he is a smooth and often cheeky writer who has for more than two decades assessed and interpreted British history in the pages of The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and The New York Times. No British academic historian today, of course, enjoys the popularity among educated American readers that J. H. Plumb, A.J.P. Taylor, and Hugh Trevor-Roper had in the 1960s and 1970s. But Cannadine comes closest, perhaps because his highly regarded books examine in a sophisticated and often ironic way topics—aristocracy, royalty, and Winston Churchill among them—that appeal to a romantic American anglophilia. His latest book looks at a big subject and interprets it in a manner that both contradicts the prevailing wisdom in academe and is bound to pluck at those anglophilic heartstrings. Not for Cannadine the fashionable notion that the British Empire was, in his words, "primarily concerned with the production of derogatory stereotypes of other, alien, subordinated societies." Rather, he sees that empire—albeit in his characteristically arch manner, and using methods and a vocabulary academically au courant—in terms very similar to those of that great romantic imperialist Churchill, who loved the empire for its "glitter, pomp and iced champagne."

Cannadine argues in Ornamentalism that in the latter half of the nineteenth century "the British" (by which he means Britain's statesmen, policymakers, and imperial administrators) deliberately "replicated" in their empire the "deeply conservative" and "layered, ordered, hierarchical society" of Britain itself. The empire, he concludes, was "the vehicle for the extension of British social structures" across the globe. Genuinely sympathetic to tradition and aristocracy, the British, he maintains, sought to nurture, sustain, and "celebrate" native aristocracies—princes and landlords in India, tribal chiefs in western Africa and the Pacific, the khedive in Egypt, sheiks in the lands surrounding the Persian Gulf—and their concomitant traditional "Burkeian" societies and ways of life. Thus Cannadine, in what he maintains is a "new and original way" to "understand the British Empire," declares that it was "not exclusively about race or colour, but was also about class and status." He continues, in a florid manner befitting the proconsular splendor he lovingly and often wittily describes, "This in turn means that it was about antiquity and anachronism, tradition and honour, order and subordination; about glory and chivalry, horses and elephants, knights and peers, processions and ceremony, plumed hats and ermine robes."

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Cannadine is countering the currently favored view in academe, which is promulgated by a flatulent and often incoherent body of historical and literary scholarship known as colonial discourse theory. This scholarship, largely developed from arguments put forth by the literary theorist Edward Said in his enormously influential book Orientalism (1978), holds that, in Cannadine's words, "the British Empire was ... concerned with the creation of 'otherness' on the presumption that the imperial periphery was different from, and inferior to, the imperial metropolis." But even as he shuns this academically trendy thesis, Cannadine embraces its methods, approach, and vocabulary. As has become de rigueur in scholarly studies of imperialism, Cannadine supports his argument not primarily with documents, official and otherwise, written by policymakers in London and throughout the empire, but with what the Oxford History of the British Empire, in a chapter on colonial discourse theory, calls "the [cultural] artefacts of the colonial experience." For Cannadine these include accounts of public rituals, such as durbars (elaborate and brassy British-organized ceremonial meetings of Indian princes); the medallions, cummerbunds, and befeathered topees that adorned both colonial officials and their native ruling partners; and the honors, awards, and titles of byzantine complexity which the British bestowed on those partners.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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